Monday, June 10, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 4: We Plant Pumpkin Seeds

In both David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg and Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the filmmaker talks about his life in 1979, and how it led to the film that would follow Fast Company in pretty much the exact same terms. This is perhaps to be expected, but it's the first time while reading these two books that there has been such a heavy overlap in Cronenberg's words. After Fast Company, he was scheduled, through the Canadian tax shelter he was using to finance his movies, to make a film, the germ of which would eventually become Scanners. But at the time, he was going through a divorce with his first wife, and a related and painful custody dispute involving his first child, a daughter. Cronenberg feared for his daughter's safety, because he says his wife was involved in a near-cultish, semi-hippie group of people, and wanted to take their daughter to California. This situation culminated in Cronenberg taking -- "kidnapping" is the word he uses -- his daughter away from her school without permission, which itself led to his ex-wife signing over the parental rights to him. All of which, in turn, got into his head in a way that he was driven to write, and push to film, not the early version of Scanners, but something else far more personal, personal to a degree he says he's never experienced since, the angriest, most bitter, most desperate, and probably the scariest film of his career. The film, which came out in 1979, the same year as Fast Company, is The Brood, his first masterpiece, and a film, he tells Grunberg, that has "a real sense of vengeance in it."

Which comes through pretty clearly. There's a great deal that's very interesting and very disturbing, in, I'd say, the best possible way, about The Brood, and so I'd like to dispense with the dreaded plot synopsis right out of the gate, because one of the interesting things about the film is where the characters are, and where the viewer is, when the film begins. Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) are divorced. Their daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) lives with Frank, while Nola is secluded at the Somafree Institute, where Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is conducting experiments and performing therapy sessions based on "psychoplasmics," which is intended to purge the patient of the psychological traumas of their pasts by forcing that psychology to manifest themselves as actual physical changes in their bodies. This is not based on nothing, as Cronenberg has pointed out that, for instance, a person under heavy emotional stress can break out into a rash, as a direct result of that stress. In the first scene, we see Raglan in a kind of theater, sitting on the stage with a shirtless man in front of him, one of his patients, going through a kind of role-playing therapy, with the patient playing his childhood self and Raglan playing the parent being addressed. This all seems like the kind of faintly absurd, or clearly absurd, sort of New Age-y psychothreapeutic nonsense many of us enjoy making fun of, until the session ends and the patient collapses into Raglan's arms, and we see sores, or lesions, all over the man's back. In the audience watching this is Frank, who has come to the institute to try and see Nola, but he's informed, as he has been before, that Nola is in no state to be seeing visitors, least of all visitors with whom she has such an emotionally tumultuous relationship. This situation disturbs Frank, but for now there's nothing he can do about it.

So this is the first interesting thing about The Brood, in a formal sense. There are three key figures in this disintegrating marriage: Frank, Nola, and their daughter Candy. In the course of the film, Frank and Nola won't even share a scene together until the end. Nola and Candy never do. What split this marriage apart, we don't know. What brought them together in the first place, we don't know. What kind of relationship Candy used to have with her mom, we don't know. But we sense there are real and specific answers to all of that, that are nevertheless irrelevant at this stage. It's all crashing down now, that's all that matters. And Cronenberg is able to do this, and avoid all of the "Well but why should I care about these people if I don't know how they met?" bullshit that plagues so many other filmmakers, how exactly? It may simply be the genre he was working in, or timing -- audiences and critics were less wound up about backstory back then, and willing to let the filmmaker tell the part of the story it was interesting to them to tell. Whatever the case, the result is that The Brood kicks off on a desperate and harried note, with Frank introduced to us as a man already in it up to his neck. Given the way things will eventually escalate, it's a wonder the man comes through it with his sanity intact. And it all, somehow, matters. I said something like this in my post about Rabid and Shivers but it bears repeating: knowing nothing but the actions on screen does not need to rob the viewer of the ability to empathize. As in Rabid, we meet the characters in The Brood after everything is different for them. What we're never told is, different from what? Yet the emotional impact is there. It speaks well of Cronenberg's grasp of general humanity, as it indicates that he doesn't need to drown you in it.

But we're not even into the meat of this thing. From here, Frank has to go back to his daily life. Candy lives with him, and he needs babysitting help. His mother-in-law (Nuala Fitzgerald) is helping him out, and shares his fear about what is happening to Nola under the care of Raglan. Then, while she's watching Candy, a series of crashes from the kitchen draw her to investigate, and she's viciously attacked and killed by, from what we can tell, a child -- blonde, like Candy -- wearing a snowsuit. This all leads to some pretty crazy shit, all adding up, finally, to the most traditional horror film Cronenberg has ever made. He himself acknowledges this, noting the "it's not over yet" stinger, and the implications of that stinger. I'd throw in that the film is structured almost like a slasher film, even though it is not that at all. But the action rises to a murder, and falls into aftermath, and rise to a murder, and so on. There's also a mystery element to this, a pretty heavy one, of the kind that slasher films originally only pretended to have, and even to the mild degree that they did stick with it, they usually let it fall away. But The Brood is a classic horror film in that the mystery (which he pays off in a hugely powerful way) doesn't have an answer that can be easily guessed, and the not knowing provides a context to shots that, without that context, could read as innocent, but with it they become creepy, eerie, and terrifying. "Scary" is not a word that often applies to Cronenberg's horror film, though "disturbing" often rushes in to take its place. The Brood, though, is scary.

That effect is strengthened by what the terrifying elements leave behind. Few directors are as attuned to the unpleasant realities of the human body, pre- and post-mortem, as Cronenberg, and the way he films the corpses here is as explicitly about them as corpses as anything from any of his later films that are perhaps more directly about violence as violence. Late in the film, Frank is seen holding in place the head of a dead woman as he checks to see if she might still be alive. When he gives up hope and takes his hands away, her head drifts and slumps in a way that is so subtly yet entirely lifeless that it's impossible to not see what Frank has seen -- or rather, not see what he has not seen. It's chilling and horribly universal: our heads will one day slide like that. It put me in mind of the flutter of Brendan Gleeson's eyes as his own lights go out in In Bruges. Both moments are like nothing else I've seen in a film in how they confront the viewer with the immediately visible biological process of death.

And all of this is even thematic, if you care, and why shouldn't you? "What is the theme?" is a question that typically bores me stupid, but not when it comes to Cronenberg (and others, but anyway), and besides that, besides his intelligence and thoughtfulness and seriousness (even through his frequent humor, which, nevertheless, Cronenberg acknowledges The Brood lacks completely) there is the fact that The Brood does something with the same kind of unabashed confidence exhibited by the only other kind of horror films that had the stones to do it. What it is, is putting his thematic concerns so far into the foreground that they not only become obvious; they become plot. The other kind of horror films that really did that, without shyness, were the classic films of the Universal era (though this does not exclude non-Universal horror films of the era). The similarities between The Brood and those films perhaps ends right there, but it's still refreshing, even exciting, to watch The Brood and see the idea that rage can infect a person and literally make you mentally and physically ill turned into the actual story. Almost every time we see Nola, she is taking part in one of Raglan's psychoplasmics therapies (as a result, Samantha Eggar shares the screen almost exclusively with Oliver Reed, and they're marvelous together; while earlier Cronenberg films had good actors and good performances in them, a corner was turned when certain internationally famous, and talented, actors began to work with him, and The Brood was that corner), and we learn, if not why her marriage failed, then we at least learn that the source of the anger that Raglan -- a mad scientist, maybe, but not an evil one -- is trying to purge from her, can be found in parts of her life and past that have nothing to do with her husband. And so when we learn that, the victims that these strange and violent little children have been murdering, begin to make sense. And the existence of the children makes sense. It all, somehow, makes sense.

Even the slide of that dead woman's head makes sense, beyond the physical reality of it, because what is The Brood if not a story about aftermath? This, again, is "theme as plot." Cronenberg's divorce and the ensuing custody battle left him bitter and angry, and, considering certain details related above, rather frightened. All of that is put on screen in a form that is entirely unhidden. Rage is the action, anger -- there's a distinction -- is the aftermath. Anger as the aftermath -- specifically, the aftermath of divorce; the film's not even an allegory! -- feeds off the characters, and makes them sick, and makes those around them sick, or it outright kills them. But it's the aftermath that is incalculable, as the film's ending makes clear. It's not a stinger in the "Oh shit here we go again!" sense that paves the way for The Brood 2; it's a stinger that acknowledges the truth of this very specific situation, in both the fantastic grotesquerie of the film we've just watched, and in its real world counterpart.

The Brood is a hugely exciting film, even now. Rarely are horror films this intelligent, both weird in their economy and economically weird, and emotionally devastating. Along with everything else, Cronenberg brings across the catharsis he felt in making the film by depicting what he dreamed about (all's I'll say is, I'm pretty sure Lars von Trier has seen The Brood) but would never, and should never, do. I'm not putting words in Cronenberg's mouth, either, he says as much in Cronenberg on Cronenberg. But it all steamed up and boiled over and spilled out and became The Brood. Horror films, and horror literature, rarely feel like they exist because their creator needed to release them. The Brood needed to be released, to infect the rest of us.


Kevin L. Ferguson said...

Excellent post on one of my favorite Cronenbergs. I'm interested in those accounts of Cronenberg's motivations/inspirations/whatnots to film The Brood. The idea of art-as-catharsis is of course another (dare-I-say) "theme" of The Brood, but I wonder how audiences are supposed to take Raglan's psychoplasmics (a jacked-up/New Age/embodied version of Freud's "talking cure"? which Cronenberg gets to later of course). Wouldn't dysfunctional repression be better, if the result of catharsis is that stinger?

The context for that question is that I think about that scene in the school, and what freaks me out more than the teacher's death is knowing that all those kids saw that. I can't remember if it's in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, but I remember him somewhere throwing his hands up and saying more or less "we can't help but fuck up our kids; it all gets passed on to them" (a bit of that in History of Violence too). I wonder if The Brood is likewise throwing its hands up at the end.

bill r. said...

I'd say yes, he's throwing up his hands, in a "this is unavoidable" sort of way. But I don't know that the audience is to make much of psychoplasmics. It's based on a medical truth -- wildly exaggerated, obviously -- and I think Raglan and his institute is just a way to communicate the concept of what's going on. He molds it into something very Cronenbergian, but I don't know if there's too much more to figure out.

John said...

Another great post, Bill, and this might be my favorite Cronenberg, so the insights are especially welcome. There is something of a cultish quality to Cronenberg's unorthodox, experimental medical clinics with their odd jargon and offbeat forms of therapy. "Psychoplasmics" brings to mind various forms of flaky New Age quackery like psychic surgery, except here instead of an elaborate hoax, we have a wacky alternative treatment that actually works wonders. Proving that at least in some cases better charlatans than the real thing.

The points about "backstory" I especially agree with. Who on earth coined that stupid-ass, meaningless word? It's just a nicer sounding term for exposition, leaden, tacked-on explanation that brings the actual story to a dead halt. Talented writers, where they feel the need to explain, can work it into the details of the story in a way that doesn't feel like clumsy force-feeding. Smart writing and a well-matched performance bring a character to life. Without them, no amount of backstory can make up for the lack.

bill r. said...

Well, it *works*, in the sense that the physical manifestations he claims will result in all this actually come about, but it doesn't help anybody. It's not only Nola who suffers negative consequences. I forgot to mention Robert Silverman, who gives a great performance as the former patient of Raglan who develops cancer due to psychoplasmics. So Cronenberg doesn't seem too ambiguous to me about this process.

As for the "backstory" stuff...I don't know. I don't get it. The people who demand it are the same people who complain about unlikable characters, or their inability to relate to them, and pick over every little plothole. I can't stand that shit.